Richard Reeves

Does Free Speech Endanger Our Troops?

SARASOTA, Fla. -- "Go back to Russia, you bum!" said someone on the right, in about the 10th row of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall when I spoke here on Wednesday. Wow! I haven't heard that one in a long time.

I was just finishing up the question-and-answer session after a speech on presidential leadership to Town Hall Today 2003, which raises funds for the Ringling School Library Association here. Great questions, great audience. The lecture was principally about John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, but a couple of the last questions zeroed in on the war in Iraq. When I said there was a possibility that President Bush might be overreaching and that history could one day judge that this was the "beginning of the end of American empire," a few people in the crowd of 1,750 people began to boo.

I think some people walked out, too, or maybe they just wanted to avoid traffic in the parking lot. I could not really see that well with spotlights in my eyes. I was perfectly prepared to ignore Bush if I could, but the questions were direct and so were my answers. I said I thought the president was ignorant of history, the secretary of defense was nuts and the secretary of state had blown it diplomatically. Most people were too polite to shout at me; possibly most agreed with me.

Most of the audience applauded, drowning out the booing, but I still heard the guy who said I was in the wrong country. Later dozens of people, supporters of the Ringling School of Art and Design here, apologized to me for the "rudeness" of others. I did not take it as rudeness. I said what I thought and they didn't like it, so they let me have it.

I thought it might be worse. Two nights before in Washington, at the annual dinner of the American-Irish Fund, the crowd, in the 2,000 range, seemed to divide evenly for and against the president's words when he gave Saddam Hussein 48 hours to get out of town. Half that crowd, including dozens of members of Congress, applauded the president; the other half just stared at a huge television screen mounted in the great hall of the National Building Museum.

Then Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson spoke. Trying to be funny, he said that we ought to build a 20-foot wall around France -- and then fill it with water. Maybe a dozen people laughed. Actually, they tittered nervously, embarrassed for Thompson, I think.

There is going to be a lot of this. The president has chosen to go to war with the country divided. A lot of Americans think this pre-emptive show of imperial power is unwarranted or immoral, an illegal invasion. Some think it is unneccesary and stupid; I am one of those. Bush and his men are gambling that we have the military capability to crush Iraq quickly and can then begin remaking the Middle East in our own image. A dream.

If the war is short -- hoping for that does unite Americans -- questions and dissent can be handled by flag-waving and other assertions of patriotism and charges of anti-Americanism. Then we can try to get out of there by declaring that all is forgiven and declare that the United Nations and Old Europe are "relevant" again and ask them to clean up the mess.

The newspapers along the Gulf Coast are already filled with debate on such questions, and one local radio station, WENG, has stopped broadcasting news from Canada -- many Canadian "snowbirds" winter here -- because the Canadian government is not supporting our war.

"Traitors," David Karagosian of Venice, Fla., writes of peace activists in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. "They should live in France ... or be put in jail." In the Tampa Times, A.J. Haselwood of that city wrote: "This is yet another classic example of the arrogant and ignorant America that the world views us as ... Maybe we should look at ourselves in the mirror."

Most of the debate, of course, is coming -- and has come after rather than before the momentous decisions in the White House. Democracy deferred. Better late than never, I suppose. But if you are not going to speak up when you believe something is wrong, you might as well be a Democratic member of Congress: Just say you support our troops and shut up!

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